Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Declarations of War, the State, and Parliament — The Second World War (part one)

Originally, I was going to copy the style of part one of this series and track through the entire Second World War. But once I got stuck in to the Dominions and their proclamations, it got very long again. Consequently, everything after the entry of Italy into the war is going to have to wait for part two-bis.

This is not necessarily a complete tour - for one, various things are not online and I'm not flying to New Zealand to have a nose, and two this article would never end if it even tried to be complete. But it should give a flavour of how the UK and the Dominions reported and enacted the commencement of the Second World War.

[You can tell I'm enjoying this!]

War with Germany

As everyone knows (or at least really ought to know) on 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. That day, the London Gazette noted that His Majesty had made a declaration in council [1] and also reported a series of proclamations calling up the reserves and so on [2].

In a supplement to that issue of the Gazette (at the time, the Gazette was only printed on Tuesdays and Fridays, although supplements could and would appear on other days ) printed on the Sunday, Chamberlain's famous ultimatum and the lack of a response to it was reported. This constitutes, unlike the situation in the Dominions, the only real "proclamation" (and it isn't even that) of the state of war. [3]

Exceptionally, although understandably, as well as meeting on the Friday (the 1st September) Parliament met on the Saturday, and in a moment even more unusual on Sunday 3rd September. As far as can be ascertained (see paragraph 17.5 of Erskine May) the Commons has only sat on a Sunday on five occasions in its long history, and four of those were due to a demise of the Crown. So the sitting on Sunday 3rd was extraordinarily exceptional.

I apologise for what follows, for to say the House passed a bewildering array of legislation at great haste is no little understatement. The House was actually adjourned at the time, having decided on 29th August to adjourn until the 5th, although it had agreed the Emergency Powers Act 1939 that day first. Consequently the Speaker had to recall them [4]

Having done so, one of the (many!) things presented to the House that day was a copy of all correspondence between the UK and Germany (by way of Command Paper) [5]

The House then suspended various rules to, inter alia, allow a Vote of Credit to pass to fund the (now seen as inevitable, though still two days off) war, part of which I reproduce here [6]

Then both Houses proceeded to pass eighteen bills in one day, which obtained the Royal Assent later that day too... [7]

The House sat again on Saturday 2nd and passed more bills, and again on Sunday 3rd where still further legislation was considered. On Sunday, a further six Acts obtained the assent [8]

And on Tuesday 5th, a further ten Acts obtained the Assent [9]

And on Thursday 7th, a further seven Acts [10], at which point the Commons adjourned until the following Wednesday. Possibly to allow the King's Printer to catch up and HMSO to catch up...

There were, of course, surrounding this all the expected debates in the Commons, which I will leave for others to find. I think forty-one Acts in seven days is enough for anyone, especially as all (or all but a de minimis fraction, I haven't precisely checked) were first introduced to Parliament on or after the 1st September.

Meanwhile, a War Cabinet was being created and the government generally reconfigured. Here, for example is the appointment of Eden as Foreign Secretary, and Andersen (of the eponymous shelter fame) as Home Secretary [11] [12]

Further emergency legislation was passed in the coming weeks, but that's a story for another time too.

Update (2019-11-06): a co-conspirator sends me this link to the BBC announcement of the outbreak of war. After Mr. Chamberlain's speech, it includes a series of government announcements, including the closure of cinemas, how air raid sirens ("hooters") work, the closure of schools to permit evacuations, read in the inimitable BBC way

"make sure you and every member of your household, especially children who are liable to run about, have their name and address on [...] sew the label into their clothes so they cannot pull it off"

After a brief further notice about unemployment benefits, the National Anthem was played. 

Declarations by the Dominions

Whereas in the United Kingdom, after the initial notice in the Gazette attention turned to Parliament, some of the Dominions produced quite a few proclamations and other instruments. These naturally all varied depending on their local legal and constitutional configurations.


Australia produced an amazing array of proclamations between 1st September and the 6th, covering everything from changes to customs rules (which I leave as an exercise to the reader to find) and regulations on shipping to the things discussed here.

On 2nd September 1939, as the situation in Europe was obviously deteriorating, Sir Winston Dugan, the Governor of Victoria [13] and as "Deputy" to the Governor-General issued a proclamation declaring that there was a "danger of war" [14]. 

Functionally, this seems to have provided for preliminary activation of all emergency legislation. For example, the same day a proclamation was issued (now by the Governor-General, the Lord Gowrie, himself) calling up the reserves [15] [16].

Anyway, as we all know, the danger of war became a war itself the next day. Hence, His Excellency issued a further proclamation [17] declaring this. Notice how this also includes, similar to the notices in the London Gazette (although much briefer), a notice from the Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, reporting that word had arrived from London that the war had begun.

The Parliament of Australia wasn't sitting at the time, but both houses had resolved that their speakers could summon them if necessary. Consequently, on 6th September, they met. The Governor-General sent messages announcing he had called out the reserves [18], and in the House of Representatives the Prime Minister opened a debate on the world situation [19]. Both houses then proceeded to pass a small set of emergency legislation.


This one has a Wikipedia article [20] but I actually think the series of Australian proclamations is more interesting.

The first thing to observe here is that this proclamation demonstrates the peculiar Gazette formatting of the Australian ones. Notice, for example, the location of the embossed seal. The second is that unlike the Australian ones, this proclamation wasn't issued in pursuance of any statutory provision. The third is that is issued in the name of the King by the Governor-General, not by the Governor-General himself. This all reflects the slightly differing views as to the constitutional position of Canada versus Australia at the time. Also, the eagle-eyed will notice this proclamation is dated the 10th. [21]

Now, obviously Parliament needed to meet to do those things parliaments must do - and to provide some sort of approbation for the war, hence the delay in issuing the previous proclamation. And herein lies a little journey. At the end of its previous session, the Parliament had been prorogued to the middle of July; in July it was decided that, actually, Senators and MPs wouldn't be needed until late August [22] [23]...

... come early August, let's actually have you all back on 2nd October [24] [25] ...

... then come 1st September, and actually a war looks pretty likely, can you all get here this Thursday! [26]

A few observations on these prorogations. Firstly, the first pair are both proclamations extending a prorogation, which accounts for why third is worded differently. Secondly, I enjoy how the first two "relieve" members from having to attend on the original day, and then enjoin them to "herein fail not" when making attendance on the new date. Thirdly, the the final one first "exonerates" members from the duty to attend on the original date, and then "commands" them to attend, for the "despatch of business" on the new one.

Parliament then met, the Governor-General, Lord Tweedsmuir, gave the Throne Speech, and proceeded to make provision for the war. By way of an aside, this Parliament was then prorogued again from the end of September until October, then successively until January, whereupon it met and was immediately dissolved. Probably a story for another day.

Although this is a fun array of prorogations, I still prefer the Australian proclamations!

New Zealand

Although there certainly was a proclamation in New Zealand (the Governor-General read it on the steps of Government House), the Gazette isn't online. However, there is this interesting telegram [27] from the Secretary of State to the Governor-General. Like Canada, New Zealand chose to formally proclaim the war, rather than just let the United Kingdom's pronouncements apply to it.

War with Italy

United Kingdom

In June 1940, essentially the reverse happened. Whereas in 1939 it had been the United Kingdom which delivered an ultimatum, which led to war, to Germany; in 1940 it was Italy which declared war on the United Kingdom. Consequently, the Gazette notice [28] is very perfunctory.

I think the opening words of Clement Attlee, the Lord Privy Seal, in the Commons that day sum up how grave the situation was better than I ever could [29]. The first paragraph is here, but I really recommend reading the whole of the Lord Privy Seal's speech.


Aside from a proclamation, necessitated by the Prize Courts Act [30] [31] declaring Italy to be an enemy state, the sole interesting entry is this perfunctory note in the Gazette in the name of the Prime Minister [32]. Again, the Australian government preferred to just let the British declaration of war extend to it ineluctably.


The Canada Gazette doesn't seem to have been digitised for this date (yet?). So things are a little spartan here, however, I intend to return to this at a later date.

New Zealand

Again, almost certainly a proclamation, but no idea what it contained.

This esoteric, and I fully admit it is of extraordinarily niche interest, article series will continue in the not to distant future with the declarations of war in December 1941 on Finland, Romania, and Hungary; and then two days later on Japan.


I am indebted to whoever compiled this Wikipedia page [33], which made quickly checking the dates in this post (and the next one) much easier.

The London Gazette is licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0; Hansard and the Journals are licensed under the Open Parliament License; the historic Commons Journals can be found online (for which I am eternally grateful). Australian Government Gazette entries are sourced from the Federal Register of Legislation, which is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Australian Hansard extracts are sourced from the Parliament of Australia Website and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence. The image of the Canadian proclamation is apparently in the public domain. The extracts from the Journals of the Canadian House of Commons are sourced from the Parliament of Canada website per [speaker's permission]

[1] London Gazette, no. 34663, page 6039 1st September 1939
[2] ibid., page 6039 et seq.
[3] And in some cases, especially royal births (still practised today, as it happens) an extra-ordinary issue of the Gazette would be produced.
[4] Commons Journal, volume 194, page 404
[5] ibid., page 405
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid., page 410
[8] ibid., pages 415-6
[9] ibid., page 422
[10] ibid., page 427
[11] London Gazette, issue 34670, page 6067, 5th September 1939
[12] Although it had been in his former role as Lord Privy Seal that the said shelter was "named"
[13] I don't think Sir Winston was acting as Administrator of the Commonwealth here, for one he had only become Governor of Victoria in July 1939. Instead, given that at the time the Commonwealth government was located in Melbourne, he was probably simply on hand and neither the actual state governor who would have been Administrator nor the Governor-General were.
[14] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1939, No. 61, p. 1845
[15] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1939, No. 62, p. 1847
[16] As a side note, the peculiar formatting of the top of these proclamations in the gazette is due to the position of the Great Seal, which (as we will also see for Canada) for Dominion proclamations seems to invariably occur at the top.
[17] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1939, No. 63, p. 1849
[18] House of Representatives Hansard, No. 36, 6th September 1939, page 26
[19] ibid. (click the links on the left)
[20] Canadian declaration of war on Germany, Wikipedia, (as at 2019-11-05 3.50 p.m.)
[21] Library and Archives of Canada, reference RG68, R1002-106-X-E.
[22] Canadian House of Commons Journal, volume 78, page iii
[23] At this point, war would have seemed reasonably distant at worst.
[24] ibid., page iv
[25] Successive prorogations like this were quite normal at the time.
[26] ibid., page v
[27] New Zealand declares war on Germany, Research and Publishing Group of the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage (accessed 2019-11-05, 10.51 p.m.)
[28] [missing, will add later]
[29] House of Commons Debates, volume 361, column 1140, 11th June 1940
[30] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1940, No. 105, p. 1237
[31] I think it is the case that the proclamation declaring a state war at all would be otiose at this point, anyway, since the already subsisting war with Germany sufficed to activate all the legislation.
[32] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1940, No. 104, p. 1235
[33] Declarations of war during World War II, Wikipedia, (as at 2019-11-05 1.02 p.m)

Monday, 4 November 2019

Declarations of War, the State, and Parliament — The First World War

Declaring war is — or possibly perhaps was — the single most dramatic action two sovereigns can take. Rupturing all ties between the two powers, it is never an action taken lightly. So, it seems reasonable that some solemnity would accompany it in state documents.

This little series of articles will be in no particular order, mostly because I don't know a good order for it. Here we will consider the First World War, and assuming the Internet doesn't hate it, in the next one the Second World War (which is also the last time wars have been formally declared). Later, we'll go back further in time, and if I haven't bored you by then, we will come back and look at some of the emergency legislation itself.

War with Germany

On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France (this was part of a complicated series of declarations of war, most of which are unimportant here).

In order to actually invade France, Germany invades Belgium. Now, there was a treaty protecting Belgian neutrality to which both the United Kingdom and Germany were parties, hence on August 5th this notice (dated the 4th) appeared in the London Gazette [1].

As a side note: "asking for passports" is a diplomatic-ism basically saying "we had to leave because war was obviously unavoidable"

Now, something which would be unsurprising to those who read Parliamentary papers avidly but might be odd to everyone else, the only mention in the Journals on the 4th is actually the Prime Minister informing MPs an emergency proclamation had been issued by the King [2].

Far from being unimportant, this was a necessary expedient. As Hansard notes, the British ultimatum didn't expire until midnight. But obviously preparatory steps needed to be taken. Some had been done in the days and weeks before as war became increasingly unavoidable (e.g. the Postponement of Payments Bill had been passed the previous day) although others, like the Defence of the Realm Act, had to wait until the 8th August.

Meanwhile, in the Lords you might be forgiven for thinking there was nothing all that serious amiss. Except for the highly unusual suspension of two Standing Orders the next day without notice [3].

War with the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Since the formal title of the German Emperor was "His Imperial and Royal Majesty", as was the Austo-Hungarian Emperor, it would have been correct to describe both declarations of war as being between His Britannic Majesty and His Imperial and Royal Majesty. Which might have been just an iota confusing. This is something we will return to in the next War, however, because some subtle shifts happened in between.

War this time began in a slightly roundabout way. The French had no effective diplomatic links with Austria-Hungary, so they asked the British to pass on a note (and I know no French so I have no idea what it's about) and the British decided to follow suit in declaring war. As before, this was published in the gazette [4]. 

Intriguingly, the Russia Duma sent the Speaker a telegram! [5]

[no I'm not capable of getting these two images to line up, clearly HTML has moved on from my teenage years...]

The usual proclamations extending all the wartime legislation to Austria-Hungary were issued, or where legislation had yet to be enacted (this being very early in the war) they were simply included from the beginning.

Emergency Legislation

It cannot pass without comment that a bewildering array of emergency legislation was passed between August and the end of the session in October. In addition, a (for its day) exceptional Vote of Credit of £ 100 million was granted by the Commons. Worth noting that although there looks to be little debate here, much debate about this occurred on ancillary motions or on the adjournment (which wasn't unusual for the day. Then there was the Defence of the Realm Act, which began in a much shorter form than it ended up. Clearly a case of legislate in haste and repent at leisure (though there is an even more spectacular, at least in my opinion, example in 1939).

War with the Ottoman Empire

The declaration of war with the Sublime Porte occured while Parliament was prorogued, so the first reference to it in Parliament was in the (markedly brief) King's Speech [6] 

The entry in the Gazette [7] was no less perfunctory, being placed beneath an notice that His Serene Highness Prince Louis Alexander of Battenburg [8] had been made a Privy Counsellor.

At the same time, in the same issue of the Gazette, the proclamations required to extend all the wartime legislation to the Ottoman Empire were issued.

War with Bulgaria

We now skip forward a bit, to 1915. This notice [9] is interesting because it is the only one which explicitly uses the titles King of X rather than X State or similar. Intriguinly, as we will see in the next post in this series, things were quite different when war became necessary with the Kingdom in the next war. 

One thing I do find curious, though I suspect it makes pragmatic sense, is the care the Foreign Office seem to take to ensure that the time of a declaration is correctly local midnight — Bulgaria being two hours ahead of Greenwich at the time if Google is to be believed. Although it did seem to take the four days to get the notice into the Gazette.

[The Hansards for the Commons for this part of 1915 are missing, so we'll have to guess what they were up to]

Again, by proclamation or otherwise, the wartime legislation was extended to Bulgaria.


The actual announcement of the armistice was surprisingly sparing, although the country and Parliament was weary after four years of conflict. However, both Houses did adjourn to St. Margaret's for a thanksgiving service.

The announcement of the Treaty of Versailles was much more marked in the Commons, however [10].

As far as I can tell, the Treaty of Peace doesn't really appear in the Gazette. However, it did produce an Act of Parliament, after some surprisingly long debates.

Hopefully this was at least slightly interesting!

[1] The London Gazette, issue 28861, page 6161, 4th August 1914
[2] Commons Journal, volume 169, page 411
[3] HL Deb, volume 17, column 384
[4] The London Gazette, issue 28870, page 6385, 14th August 1914
[5] Commons Journal, volume 169, page 442
[6] HL Deb, volume 18, column 2
[7] The London Gazette, issue 28965, page 9011, 6th November 1914
[8] This guy, who was Earl Mountbatten of Burma's father.
[9] The London Gazette, issue 29333, page 10257, 19th October 1915
[10] HC Deb, volume 117, column 630

The London Gazette is licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0; Hansard and the Journals are licensed under the Open Parliament License; the historic Commons Journals can be found online (for which I am eternally grateful)